The current crises in Washington is the decision by the president to pull US forces out of Syria and thereby ending the protection we have afforded to our Kurdish allies. In the middle of the arguments the president daughter in law, Lara Trump, made a statement in support of the president that said the average American had to Google the Kurds to find out who they were. This set off a firestorm of criticism justified or not. The main problem with the statement for many is that it is basically true. Even those who know the Kurds do not fully understand who or what they are. In order to educate we think it time to produce a Kurdish primer, or at least one about the current Kurds.
To begin the Kurds are an ethnic group not a race and have occupied the area commonly referred to as Kurdistan for over a millennium. They share no common history or culture with those surrounding them other than through interactions with their neighbors. As the region was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, they became subjects of the Caliph but, like most throughout the empire, maintained their identity. Like many groups there were fissures and differences which can be seen today most glaringly in the different dialects of spoken Kurdish, some argue different languages. Throughout this time Kurdish culture remained intact. Following the end of the First World War the Kurds were divided up amongst three separate countries, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, while a portion remained in Persia or todays Iran. The Kurds have fought for a separate country ever since. As the Kurds became more independent, they began to develop separate political philosophies and parties.
To put into context the Kurds are not a monolithic group but like all other people in the world hold different political views and opinions. They have shown however they are different then their neighbors by allowing for different philosophies and different ethnicities to coexist in the Kurdish region.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is the oldest of the modern Kurdish political movements. Founded in 1946 as a Pan-Kurdish party in Iran it was instrumental in the creation of an independent but short-lived Kurdistan known as the Mahabad Republic. When the Soviet Union removed its backing the tow leaders Qazi Muhammad and Mustafa Barzani had a final falling out and Barzani established the Iraqi brand of the KDP.
The KDP was mostly operated as a tribal entity and existed by the strong will and stronger hand of Barzani. The back and forth relationship between the KDP and the various governments in Baghdad led to a revolt in 1974 in which the Kurds did not fare well. Results of the revolt on the Kurds led to the establishment of a second party in 1975, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Despite personal difference between Barzani and the leader of the PUK, Jalal Talabani, another difference was philosophical. The KDP was more tribal and center right while the PUK held a more socialist left drift. This split was so severe that it led to a brief but violent civil war between the two parties with the KDP looking to Baghdad for help and the PUK turning to Iran.
While the KDP and PUK never fully reconciled the actions of Saddam Hussain in his attacks of the Kurds killing hundreds of thousands did push the two sides together in the face of a common enemy. The Persian Gulf war allowed for a greater sense of autonomy until once again Saddam launched attacks on the Kurds as well as Sunni Arabs. After the US led invasion in which the Kurds play an important role an autonomous Kurdish region was set up and then enshrined into the Iraqi constitution.
The newly established Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) now sits in its capitol Erbil and is the acknowledge government for the Kurdish Region of Iraq. There are a dozen different political parties represented in the Kurdish parliament for the KDP and PUK to Gorran (Change), New Generation, as well as the Communist party and the Kurdistan Islamic Group as well as others.
We have spent some time on the Iraqi Kurds since they are the best known to the American audience. We now turn to the Turkish Kurds who as a population represent the largest group of Kurds in the Region.
While Iraq treated its Kurdish population as second class citizens the Turks refused to even admit that the Kurds were a separate ethnic group. Denying the use of the Kurdish language or celebration of Kurdish culture the Turk went so far as to rename them Mountain Turks. While the Iraqi Kurds evolved the Turkish Kurds responded to their oppression by the formation of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK. The PKK grow from the revolutionary youth movement begun in the 1960 and was organized in 1974 as a Marxist-Leninist student movement. Moving through clashes with both police and right-wing organization it became a full-blown armed insurrection based on Kurdish nationalism and desiring a Pan-Kurdish nation. The PKK has gone through some evolutionary changes but remains basically an armed revolutionary group based in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq moving between attacking Turkish outpost and working for a peace agreement. This has been on going for 30 years. On the political side there have been a number of parties that have been associated with the PKK. The current party is the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP). HDP has had success in elections even winning a large number of seats in the Parliament in the 2015 general election. The ruling party under the current President Erdogan canceled the results and held new elections which reduced the win. Following which leaders of HDP in parliament were striped of their seats and some imprisoned under the claim of being or supporting terrorist. Most recently several mayors of towns in the Kurdish region were removed and replaced with Turks.
The PKK was chased around the region and at one time were in Syria until Turkey forced the Syrian government to get them to leave. Before leaving they establish a Syrian branch of the PKK which became the Democratic Union Party or PYD. This has allowed Turkey to claim the PYD as a terrorist organization and part of the PKK. While calling for autonomy of the Kurdish regions in Syria the PYD has learned the Lesions of the PKK and have mostly cooperated with the Syrian government until the time of the Syrian civil war. The PYD used the disarray in Syria to establish an autonomous government but did not engage in the war against the Assad regime itself. It has rejected Kurdish nationalism and maintains a Kurdish-Syrian identity. Like many parties in the region it maintains an armed force called the Peoples Protection Unit of YPG and an affiliated Women’s Protection Unit or YPJ. Today the Turkish government is unable to separate the PYD from the PKK in its operations which has led to the current violence. It is difficult also for some in the west to make the distinction because of a similar socialist ideology.
Another which Turkey claim’s is affiliated with PKK, is the Iranian Kurdish group the Kurdistan Free Life Party or PJAK. PJAK started out as a civil rights movement in the Kurdish region of Iran and moved to a violence when attacked by Iranian forces. Pushed out of Iran they set up in the Qandil mountains in Iraq and came under the influence there of the PKK. While adopting socialist ideology it is not known has much the PKK can influence PJAK away from its desire to maintain Persian roots.
Most Kurdish parties in Iran are outright communist or very left. Also, most are breakaways form other parties with the oldest being the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran.
Not all parties are mentioned is this article and much of the history has been severely modified, but as Lara Trump said it can be Googled. This brought us to a conclusion that the average is not up to date on geography, or the Middle East. We can point out so many television shows interviews where the average American on the street when asked about the past and present US presidents are clueless so we are not shocked about Lara’s statement as so many Kurds are. Education plays a big part in this case. The only thing that unites most Kurds is a call for a homeland. We are speaking of upwards of 40 million people without a nation. To dismiss any attempt to achieve autonomy is to ignore history. Regardless of what happens the Kurds, will continue to fight for independence within their respective regions. While it is unlikely that a united Kurdistan can be achieved it is possible to create separate Kurdish states that can work in confederation with each other. Giving in to Turkey will not stop the desire of the Kurds to be free. It is time that the United State, Unite Kingdom and other countries stand up for Kurds, those who claimed Kurds are their allies, those who used Kurds to push the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Iraq, and defeated them in Syria. Kurds shed blood for the world, it is time for everyone to step in and support the establishment of an Independent Kurdistan. President Trump made many harsh statements in the past a few days about the Kurds, first he mentioned that they are no angels, and then he said they got paid a lot of money. This angered Kurds tremendously. As president Masud Barzani replied to his statment, “Kurdish Blood is more valuable than money and weapons.
Chiman Zebari is a Kurdish American author, and human rights activist. She was an analyst for the US Intelligence Community. She has also worked for the US government in other capacities and was a broadcaster for Voice of America.
Paul Davis is a retired Military-Political analyst for the US Army as well as a civilian analyst in the US Intelligence Community with a concentration on the middle east with an emphasis on the Kurds. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC.